February 2021


Confrontation or coexistence?

Jayanta Roy Chowdhury looks at how – and why – India and Pakistan are vying for influence in the rocky political landscape of their western neighbour 

The Democracy Forum shone its spotlight on the Indo-Pacific last month with a discussion entitled ‘Shifting focus on the Indo-Pacific: does it hold the key to containing China?’

Former BBC Asia Correspondent Humphrey Hawksley moderated four expert panellists as they debated this central premise: former speaker of the House of Lords Baroness Frances D’Souza, Professor Brahma Chellaney of New Delhi’s Centre for Policy research, Dr Lynn Kuok of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and Dr Neil Melvin of the Royal United Services Institute.

The Forum’s president, Lord Bruce, laid out the canvas for the debate by outlining how, for the past three years, US policy towards the Indo-Pacific had been predicated on the need to contain and control the growing threat of Beijing’s strategic and economic ambitions. Lord Bruce asked if and how the US could now re-engage with its allies and reactivate its moral authority. He also raised the question of injecting ideological principles into American diplomacy.

Lady D’Souza argued that a new or refreshed world order was needed to ensure that the Indo-Pacific was underpinned by good governance and adherence to the rule of law. China’s current strategy of riding roughshod over democratic norms was unlikely to work in the long term, she explained, but at the same time, Western sanctions over issues such as Hong Kong were equally unlikely to promote change.

In a downbeat assessment, she noted that China’s illiberal actions in Hong Kong and Taiwan demonstrated its wider regional plans. Further afield, the Belt and Road Initiative carried evidence that Chinese state-owned firms were working to undermine democratic institutions and extend the reach of dubious Chinese practices globally.

‘There is as yet no coherent democratic alternative to combat these aggressive developments,’ she said. ‘The best possible antidote to Chinese inroads would be a formal coalition of regional and US, UK and other European states to agree on measures to establish and reinforce a sustainable rules-based order in the Indo Pacific.’

Brahma Chellaney was unhesitant is stating that the Indo-Pacific was the region that would determine the future of American power. ‘China’s aggressive expansionism is driving even Western powers like the UK, France and Germany to view the pluralistic rules-based Indo-Pacific as central to international peace and security,’ he argued.

Of specific concern to Professor Chellaney was the language used in new US President Biden’s initial statements on the region. Instead of referring to the ‘Indo-Pacific’, Biden referred to the‘Asia-Pacific’, a term preferred by Beijing. Nor did Biden speak about the Indo-Pacific being ‘free and open’; instead, he said his aim was to make the region ‘secure and prosperous’ which, for Chellaney, carried ‘ominous implications’.

TDF President, Chair & Panellists at TDF’s Jan. 20 webinar on China

Whereas ‘free and open’ indicated the rules-based environment, argued Chellaney, ‘secure and prosperous’ implied adilution of that goal. He also challenged a phrase adopted by Biden officials,‘managed coexistence’ with China, which risked leading to a G2 environment dominated by the two rival superpowers.

However, Dr Lynn Kuok disagreed, asserting that managed coexistence was what we should all be striving for. She pointed out another phrase used by Biden’s team – ‘competition without catastrophe’ – indicating that, unlike Trump, President Biden will not seek to inflame tensions.

Dr Kuok’s focus was Southeast Asia, the sub-region that remains wary about having to choose sides. ‘While many Southeast Asian countries want to curb China’s worst excesses, including its behaviour in the South China Sea,’ she said,‘they do not want to be caught up in containing China’s rise, not least because many of these countries have also benefited from this economic rise.’

And in a point which perhaps went to the heart of the debate, she laid out a long-running conundrum. ‘While most countries in the region would not quarrel with an attempt to defend a rules-based international order, they want less to do with attempts to maintain it.’

Southeast Asia was a very pragmatic region, said Kuok, making the US ideological stance, as referenced by Lord Bruce, of concern. ‘From the region’s perspective. [this] would be quite worrying for at least three reasons. First, it could unnecessarily deepen tensions between the United States and China. Second, it could alienate potential partners and, third, a focus on ideology would open strategic space to China.’

Concentrating on the UK’s post-Brexit role in Asia, Dr Neil Melvin said the two issues of leaving the European Union and tilting towards the Indo-Pacific had become fused in ‘quite a remarkable way’. Also, as in the US, the view of China’s expansion was shared across party lines.

Britain’s key problem was that it had no China policy and its actions had become reactive. ‘The UK hasn’t clearly forged a strategy of what it really wants from China, as a middle power with considerable assets, but of course, very far off from the Indo-Pacific region and very far from China and what you can realistically achieve.’

Melvin dismissed the concept of containment. The world was too integrated and, although China and the US would be dominant, it would not become a G2 situation. ‘There are many other actors who are emerging and getting close to our own shores,’ he pointed out, referring to Russia, Turkey and others.

China needed to be integrated into this global scenario. ‘We have to put together a diverse set of policies around deterrence, and also cooperation with China that can achieve our aims,’ Melvin argued, adding that there is the need for a ‘geostrategic coalition of countries around deterrence and balancing China’s power. And not all those countries are going to be democracies. So, we’re going to have different relations.’

In summing up the debate, The Democracy Forum Chair, Barry Gardiner MP, described containment as trying to isolate externally, whilst dividing internally and therefore it should be avoided. It would be best if the West approached the changing Indo-Pacific with a sense of humility and self-perception.

India announced in November that it will be building the $236 million Shahtoot Dam on the Kabul river basin

Outgoing President Donald Trump, in a surprise move, has already committed to slashing the US armed presence in Afghanistan from 4,500 troops to 2,500 before he leaves office, leaving the Afghan government with little option but to try and negotiate a peaceful end to the fighting.

Whether the talks will end in a negotiated peace, which the world and Afghanistan wants, or mark the beginning of another `back to the future’ civil war of the kind Afghanistan witnessed when Najibullah’s regime came to an end in 1992, is however something few can forecast.

India seems to be wishing for the best while preparing for the worst-case scenario. ‘Our reading is that the Taliban is looking for victory and not a peace deal,’ says Gautam Mukhopadhaya, former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan and currently Senior Fellow with the think tank Centre for Policy Research (CPR).

The Taliban’s chief negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, visited Pakistan recently to not only discuss the peace deal with the country’s leadership, but reportedly to try and get Talib field commanders based there to stop or lower the tempo of terror attacks in Afghanistan. Either thatwas a fairy story, or Baradar’s influence on the diffused Taliban leadership lacks any real authority. 

OUTRAGE: A Taliban car bomb killed eight civilians in Kabul on Dec. 20
Outgoing US President Trumphas committed to slashing the US armed presence in Afghanistan from 4,500 troops to 2,500

Jayanta Roy Chowdhury is an Indian journalist with three decades of experience in reporting from South Asia

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